Safari bingo: animals

Tired of always having to ask your safari guide what you're looking at on a game drive? Here's your cut-out-and-keep guide to the most common animals. Shout 'Bingo!' when you've crossed them all off...but not too loudly!

Safari bingo: birds

Confused by all the species of birds you're seeing on safari in Africa? Here's your cut-out-and-keep guide to the most common ones. Shout 'Bingo!' when you've crossed them all off...but not too loudly!

Fantastic beasts and where to find them

As Noël Coward never said, "Very flat, Tanzania."

You've heard of LBJ, right? Well, this is an LBR...

You've heard of LBJ, right? Well, this is an LBR...

When God painted Tanzania, he did so with a very limited palette of green and brown. There's not much variety in the landscape either, and some of the grassy plains are so flat you could lie on your back and see for a hundred miles! The only relief is the occasional kopje, or rock formation, but that's more like the artist's signature on a blank canvas. However, when He carved the Serengeti heat alive with wildlife, His imagination knew no limit. I saw a total of 38 animals and 85 birds during my Classic Tanzania Safari with Exodus Travels, including lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros, cheetah, zebra, giraffe and impala. We even saw the very rare caracal, which is a medium-sized cat similar to a lynx. There wasn't as much game as there is in the peak season from July to September, but we still saw thousands of wildebeest and zebra taking part in the Great Migration, and I took over a thousand pictures a day! In the end, I came back with 669 shots I thought were good enough to sell through stock agencies, and I even chose three prints to include in my next exhibition.

The spectacular and exciting variety of animals in places like Tanzania is the reason I keep going back to Africa, and, for me, the highlights of any trip are usually connected with the pictures I manage to take. After all, I count myself a professional photographer these days, so I never just go on 'holiday' any more! We didn't see a kill - which is the crowning glory of any safari - but we did see a cheetah just after it had killed a hartebeest. It spent around half an hour gorging itself right in front of us - only five or ten yards away - while a marabou stork and over a dozen vultures waited patiently for their share of the spoils. On the horizon, the hartebeest's mother kept up a solo vigil the whole time. Very sad...

Cheetah

Cheetah

The same cheetah

The same cheetah

Another highlight was seeing so many lions. One day, we were driving through a meadow with very tall grass, and I told our driver Julius that we were in 'lion country' now. Within a couple of hours, we'd seen around 14 lions in two separate prides, one lounging on a termite mound and another sleeping beside a tree! I love the excitement of predators, so it was great to be able to get such good sightings.

Feline graffiti

Feline graffiti

Lion

Lion

Lion

Lion

The other highlight was the birds we saw. Tanzania has a huge bird population, with more than 1,100 species, and we saw some spectacular specimens, including a red-cheeked cordon-bleu and a red-and-yellow barbet that I never even knew existed! When it comes to individual shots, my favourite was the one of the lilac-breasted roller at the top of the page. It's a beautiful bird anyway, but I was particularly lucky when it fluttered its wings unexpectedly without taking off. That gave me the chance to get a rare 'action shot'. I prefer action shots to portraits, but there wasn't much action to see on this trip, apart from a couple of buffalo fighting in the distance and two elephants 'fighting' like punched-out heavyweights in the 12th round of a fight, so we had to make the most of what we were given.

There were nine guests on the Exodus trip, which ran from 12-21 January 2018, plus an excellent guide called Jackson and a couple of drivers - Alex and Julius - for the four-wheel drive Toyota Land Cruisers we were using. One of the guests put a message on the Exodus community website before the trip, so I ended up meeting her at Heathrow and travelling with her all the way to Kilimanjaro, where we joined with the rest of the group. The actual 'travelling' is the only bit of travelling I don't like, so it was nice to have some company on such a long journey (and in the jeep later). Getting to Africa is never straightforward, and it took me over 38 hours to go from my flat in Putney to the front seat of the Land Cruiser on our first game drive!

I love close-up shots, so I followed my usual habit of renting a Nikon 800mm lens from Lenses For Hire for our trip. I have two Nikon camera bodies, a D810 and a D850, and I usually fit my Nikon 80-400mm lens to one and the 800mm lens to the other. I end up taking roughly half my shots with each camera. The only other things I take with me are my SpiderPro belt (just to help me carry everything to the jeep!), a lens cloth and a spare battery. You generally spend most of the day in the safari truck, so you don't need to worry about bringing hiking boots. I just put on trainers, cargo pants (with plenty of pockets!), a long-sleeved shirt (or merino base layer if it's cold) and a proper sun hat with a chin strap (not a baseball cap, as the brim gets in the way, and it might blow off!). The sun is usually very hot, and I always use a Nivea stick on my nose, but I avoid having to put on too much sun cream by covering up my arms and legs. If you're a photographer, you don't go on safari to get a sun tan!

Game drives are the whole point of going on safari, and you soon get into a routine. Whether you're staying at lodges or permanent tented camps or even in tents you have to put up yourselves, you always end up doing pretty much the same thing - and this trip was no exception. You generally wake up to an early breakfast - either at dawn or even earlier - and go out in your safari trucks for a few hours before returning for lunch or eating a packed lunch somewhere along the way. After another game drive in the afternoon, you head back to camp for a shower, drinks, dinner and a relatively early night. When I get back to camp, I like to edit all the pictures I've taken during the day, so that usually means hunching over my laptop for a few hours here and there. I wake up early at the best of times, so that means I can do a few hours' work before breakfast or, if I can't sleep, in the middle of the night! 

Most safaris take place in a few different places, so the routine will also often include a journey to the next stop. Apart from a quick visit to the Oldupai Gorge to hear about the Leakeys' paleontological discoveries, we visited four main locations on our trip: Lake Manyara, Serengeti National Park, the Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire National Park, and they were all very different.

Lake Manyara

Lake Manyara National Park is not the most famous safari destination, but it does have a reputation for its 'tree-climbing lions'. In fact, all lions can climb trees, but the lions that climb trees at Lake Manyara (which we actually saw) get the extra benefit of cool breezes on the slopes of the surrounding hills. Inside the park, you'll find Lake Manyara itself and a flat, marshy plain around it, but also the heavily wooded hills that form the walls of the Great Rift Valley. This was formed by plate tectonics and is a vast corridor that runs the length of Africa, all the way from Jordan to Mozambique. It splits into eastern and western spurs, but they're both so wide that you can never see the hills on both sides. Instead, you find the enormous flat plains known as the African savanna(h), which are the home to all the 'traditional' game animals, including the Big Five (rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and Cape buffalo). When you enter Lake Manyara National Park, the first things you notice are the trees and the hills that form the walls of the Rift Valley. The lack of open ground means that game is tricky to spot initially - apart from a few vervet and blue monkeys in the trees - but it gets easier once you drive out to the lake. Sadly, there was an unusually large amount of overnight rain during the course of our trip, so the lake and other water holes we passed were not the 'game magnets' that they normally are during the dry season. However, if the quantity of sightings was low, the quality was high, so that kept us happy.

Serengeti

The Serengeti plains are the stereotypical African safari destination. There is a good quantity of game all year round, and the landscape is ideal for spotting them as there are so few trees. Apparently, all the volcanic activity in the area has left a layer of tough igneous deposits a few feet below the surface that prevent trees from getting the nourishment they need to grow. Whatever the reason, it means that you are able to see those iconic, unbroken vistas that remind you of the etymology of 'Serengeti', which means 'endless plain'.

Vervet monkey

Vervet monkey

Male impala

Male impala

Black-headed heron in black and white

Black-headed heron in black and white

Ngorongoro Crater

The Ngorongoro is named after the sound a Masai cowbell makes. It is surprisingly small, and you can see the walls of both sides of the caldera from wherever you are on the central plain. There is also a strange optical illusion at work. The crater is 600 metres deep, and it looks like a very long way from the viewpoint up on the rim at 2,400 metres above sea level, but, when you look back up from the crater floor, the hills don't look that high at all. Strange... Anyway, the Ngorongoro has a justly deserved reputation as a safari destination and contains all the animals you'd expect to see - with the exception of the giraffe, which can't get down the steep slope from the crater rim because its legs are too long! On our trip, we had a couple of good sightings of lions here, particularly on the kopjes, where they choose to lie high up on the rocks to get a better view, and we came across a family group of elephants on either side of the road that gave us a great chance to get up close and personal.

African elephant

African elephant

Tarangire

In terms of the landscape, Tarangire National Park is a kind of cross between Lake Manyara and the Serengeti. It boasts the hills and water of the first, but with the open savannah of the second. It also has quite a few of the distinctive baobab trees.


Did you know?

Baobab trees can be up to 2,000 years old, but there are few young ones as they get eaten by elephants, which eat the bark of the tree in the dry season as it contains large amounts of water.


Unfortunately, we didn't see much game there when we went. Normally, it's an important source of water for the animals, but the unseasonal rains meant that there was enough water for them to range far and wide without being tied to the Tarangire River. That meant they could 'save' that water source for when they really needed it in the dry season. We spent most of our time in Tarangire driving around looking for game, and the only good shot I got was the one of the lilac-breasted roller. On the other hand, the views were spectacular, and we spent our last night at a wonderful place called the Tarangire Safari Lodge, which gets a star rating in Lonely Planet. It had a long row of tents for all the guests, each with solar-powered lights and showers and a veranda with chairs and a table out front. There was a lookout point on the cliffs a few yards away that offered a spectacular panorama of the hills and river below, and the main building incorporated an enormous circular banda, with a vast roof above the dining area.

The food was a cut above the usual fare, and our dinner there consisted of pumpkin and ginger soup, mango and green pepper salad, bean and vegetable salad and then beef stew with rice or potatoes, followed by passion fruit mousse and plum tart with custard. The only problem was all the bugs flying around - even indoors. They managed to bite me even through my shirt, leaving four angry red spots on my back. It was horrendous, and it was the first time on the entire trip that I threatened to lose my sense of humour. Trying to edit my pictures on my laptop at the bar after dinner was almost impossible. The staff didn't do anything about all the creepy-crawlies and flying insects - apart from clearing away the dead bugs with a broom! - and it got even worse when I got back to my tent. It was crawling with insects, but there was no bug spray, and the bed didn't even have a mosquito net. When I couldn’t find the light switch as it wasn’t in the bathroom...well, I lost it and started sweating my head off! I hope my neighbours didn’t hear me! In the end, I had to squash all the bugs with a laminated menu card from the welcome pack. What a way to ruin - and I mean absolutely ruin! - what should’ve been a great experience to end the trip. 

This Is Africa

That brings me on to a final point about going on safari. You have to take the rough with the smooth. 'This Is Africa', as they say, so you should expect a few minor problems and even one or two dramas, but you have to take it in good part. "Hakuna matata," as they say, or "No worries." If you were to write a list of pros and cons for going on safari, it would look something like this:

Cons

  • Very expensive
  • Long journey to get there
  • Long hours in the jeep
  • No electricity during the night (if at all!)
  • No hot water during the night (if at all!)
  • Patchy mobile coverage
  • Patchy or non-existent wi-fi
  • Broken equipment, eg in-car radio transceivers
  • Mosquitoes carrying a risk of malaria (and therefore having to take Malarone pills every day)
  • Tsetse flies (with a very sharp bite!) carrying a risk of sleeping sickness
  • All kinds of other insects and bugs, dropping on you wherever you are and making a home in the bathroom
  • Not being able to drink the water
  • Poor quality food and lack of alternative options
  • Constant worry about losing something or having it stolen (particularly bad in my case when staying in a tent without a lock on it with £30,000-worth of camera equipment in my bag!)
  • Daily risk of food poisoning (particularly from ice in drinks and/or washed vegetables such as green peppers - which directly caused me to make five unscheduled trips to the bathroom in Tarangire!)
  • Having to share a room/tent with someone who is not necessarily your favourite person in the world (unless you pay hundreds of pounds to sleep on your own!)
  • Vehicles often breaking down or getting stuck
  • Animals trying to get into your tent at night
  • Having to be escorted around the camp after dark in case of animal attack
  • Etc, etc, etc...

Pros

  • Wildlife
  • Er, that's it...

Yes, I know it's a very long list of cons and a very short list of pros. In fact, it was worse than that on our trip as a bridge was washed away by the flooding, and we had to find a way to ford the river in our Land Cruiser. So many jeeps got stuck in the mud trying to do the same thing that it looked a bit like the elephants' graveyard, but we eventually found a way across. Our problems didn't end there, though, as some enterprising locals had decided to pile rocks on the way up from the makeshift river crossing and were demanding money to let us through! We eventually had to have a whip-round and gave them a few Tanzanian shillings. Even then, we got stuck in the mud on the way back to the main road, and it was only when all the passengers climbed out of the jeep that Julius was able to make it to safety. We all thought he'd done a great job - until we found out that Alex had managed drive the other jeep across without any problems at all!

And yet, and yet...we did see fantastic wildlife. It may not sound like much compared to having to get up at five in the morning and go without hot water, electricity and wi-fi most of the time, but the fact I keep going back speaks for itself. When you sit down with your grandchildren on your knee, and they ask what you did during your lifetime, are you going to tell them you had eight hours' sleep every night and a hot shower every morning and never let a day go by without checking social media, or are you going to tell them you saw the best of God's creation in Africa...?

 

 

 

Butcher's bill

1 x tube of sun cream (confiscated at Heathrow)
1 x tube of shower gel (confiscated at Heathrow)
£60 fine for exceeding hand luggage weight limit (confiscated at Heathrow)

Species list:

Animals

Agama lizard
Banded mongoose
Bat-eared fox
Black rhinoceros
Blue monkey
Bohor reedbuck
Bushbuck
Cape (or African) buffalo
Caracal
Cheetah
Common (or plains) zebra
Dwarf mongoose
Eland
Elephant
Goff’s mongoose
Golden jackal
Grant’s gazelle
Hartebeest
Hippo
Impala
Kirk’s dikdik
Leopard
Lion
Masai giraffe
Mongoose
Monitor lizard
Mouse
Nile crocodile
Olive baboon
Rock hyrax
Silver-backed jackal
Spotted hyena
Thomson’s gazelle
Topi
Vervet monkey
Warthog
Waterbuck
White-tailed mongoose

Birds

Abdim’s storkAfrican fish eagle
African hoopoe
African jacana
African spoonbill
Ashy starling
Augur buzzard
Bateleur
Black kite
Black-bellied bustard
Black-headed heron
Black-headed weaver
Black-necked sand goose
Black-shouldered kite
Blacksmith plover
Blue starling
Brown snake eagle
Common house martin
Crested guineafowl
Crow
Crowned plover
D'Arnaud's barbet
Eagle owl
Eastern chanting goshawk
Egyptian goose
Eurasian roller
Fiscal shrike
Flamingo
Francolin
Giant heron
Greater kestrel
Green pigeon
Grey crowned crane
Grey flycatcher
Grey heron
Grey hornbill
Grey-headed heron
Hadada ibis
Hammerkop
Knob-billed duck
Kori bustard
Lappet-faced vulture
Lilac-breasted roller
Little bee-eater
Little egret
Long-crested eagle
Madagascan bee-eater
Magpie shrike
Marabou stork
Martial eagle
Mosque swallow
Ostrich
Pelican
Pin-tailed whydah
Red-and-yellow barbet
Red-billed hornbill
Red-billed oxpecker
Red-billed weaver
Red-cheeked cordon-bleu
Sacred ibis
Secretary bird
Silver bird
Silver-cheeked hornbill
Somali bee-eater
Southern ground hornbill
Speckled mousebird
Striated heron
Superb starling
Tailed rufous weaver
Tawny eagle
Violet wood-hoopoe
Von der Decken’s hornbill
Ward’s starling
Watt starling
White stork
White-backed vulture
White-browed coucal
White-browed cuckoo
White-capped shrike
White-faced whistling duck
White-headed buffalo weaver
White-ringed dove
Yellow-collared lovebird
Yellow-necked superfowl

 

Tigers in Tadoba

"What did you do for your birthday, Nick?"
"I shot 12 tigers."

Shere Khan, aka Maya 'The Enchantress'

Shere Khan, aka Maya 'The Enchantress'

"Tigerrrrrrr!" shouted our guide, and the driver stomped on the accelerator so hard we were doing 60mph before I knew what was happening. I clung on for dear life as we rounded a 90° bend without slowing down at all, cradling my camera in my arms. After a couple of the most exciting minutes of my life, we came across two young male tigers playing at a water hole...

That was my first experience of tigers in India. Unfortunately, the two we saw were just a bit too far away to get any decent pictures, and we had no more sightings on the trip. That's why I went back a couple of weeks ago to try again.

If you're happy to travel 20 hours to be woken up at 0445 in the morning to spend eight hours in 47°C heat waiting to catch a glimpse of tigers up to 500 yards away, then this is ideal the trip for you! I went with 10 other guests on an Exodus tour called Tigers in Tadoba, led by Paul Goldstein. I'd been on a trip with Paul before, to see polar bears in Spitsbergen, so I knew that he always gives you the best possible chance of taking pictures of the animals. He describes himself as being 'like Marmite' - you either love him or you hate him! - and he's certainly not shy of swearing at you or giving you a withering putdown for getting in his way or making a fool of yourself with your camera! However, he's a great photographer, naturalist and raconteur, and that's exactly what we needed for this kind of trip, considering the rather challenging conditions. In fact, almost all of the guests had travelled with Paul at least once before, so their loyalty is the real proof of his credentials. 


Paulisms

'House of Tards' - the place where the idiots on the trip lived

'Mincing' - faffing around (see also 'quincing', which we decided was faffing around for more than 10 minutes)

'Muppetry' - any sort of mistake, particularly faffing around or making a photographic error

'Nonsense' - hors d'oeuvres

'Spaz' - idiot


In the end, we saw around 12 tigers spread over 11 game drives in the course of five-and-a-half days at the Tiger Trails Resort in the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. We also saw a sloth bear, a variety of spotted, sambar and barking deer and several smaller animals, but the tigers were the main focus. That's something you have to understand before you take this kind of trip. It's not like an African safari where there are so many iconic animals that you can just keep driving around until you see something else. In Tadoba, we were there to see the tigers, and we happily drove past herds of eminently photographable animals in the constant rush to see the star of the show. That means we did spend hours parked up at a water hole or other likely spot, sometimes surrounded by rows of other jeeps and trucks, waiting for a sighting. The roads were bumpy, there was a ton of red dust that got all over your clothes and camera equipment and there was usually very little shade, but the payoff was huge.

I love to take pictures of the big predators, such as lions, cheetahs and leopards, but all those pale by comparison with the tiger. It's the largest of the big cats, and it sits right at the top of the food chain in India. Not even the leopard comes close. There is also something about its orange and black stripes and the gorgeous power and grace of the animal. They do look a bit ungainly trying to climb out of a water hole, but that's just a tiny quibble set against everything else. Our local guide Himanshu Bagde had even written a long article with pictures about 'Maya the Enchantress' in the Indian Times. Maya was one of the tigers we saw, and the article was posted up on the wall of the dining area, so we could all learn a lot more about the animal. All the adult tigers have names, and we saw Maya, Matkasur and Madhur as well as several sub-adult males and females. These 'cubs' are only given names when they separate from their mother.

Our general routine was to have two game drives each day in Suzuki Gypsy 4WD vehicles, the first from 0500-1000 and the second from 1500-1900. We only had three guests in each jeep, but they were still a bit cramped - especially for me when I had to try and squeeze into the front seat with two cameras and an 800mm lens! In between, there was a generous buffet-style brunch from around 1100 onwards, involving omelettes and chapattis made to order, and at around 2030 we all went up to Paul's balcony for a few drinks and what he called 'nonsense' (ie nibbles) before having dinner in the open air. The local Indian food was excellent, particularly the mango lassis and some heavenly chicken satay skewers, and there were even a bowl of chips and one or two western dishes if you were nursing a touch of 'Delhi belly'. Ellie and I celebrated our birthdays on the trip, and we were both given cakes with relighting candles - a special gift from Paul! The accommodation was also very comfortable. I had a suite that was about five times the size of my studio flat in Putney, which consisted of a bedroom, a bathroom and a shower room. It also had a staircase leading up to the first-floor balcony. That was handy on the first night, when I spent half an hour before dinner taking shots of what was a gorgeous harvest moon.

Yes, it really was this colour!

The balcony was outside Andy and Eddie's room, and we all ended up taking pictures together. They needed a bit of help with their photography, so I gave them a few tips over the first few days, and we regularly ended up in the same jeep for the game drives. 

The highlight of the whole trip for me was the first sighting of Maya in the water hole, mainly because of the pictures I was able to take. I happened to overhear Paul suggest underexposing the image by a full stop, so I experimented with one and then two stops of exposure compensation and then played around with the images in Lightroom. I was delighted with the results.

Is this what 'fine art' photography is supposed to be...?

Is this what 'fine art' photography is supposed to be...?

I should perhaps explain that this looks nothing like what we actually saw in real life, but then that's the point, isn't it? Photography is art, and every artist's challenge is to come up with something new, challenging and dramatic. Paul called it 'top work, and it's the first time I've taken a photograph that might be classed as a 'fine art' print. My whole reason for going to Tadoba was to get a five-star picture of a tiger, so job done!

If you prefer a more 'realistic' shot of what the tigers actually looked like, here's one I took at the same water hole under the same conditions, but this time without underexposing the image.

HMS Tiger

You can see that the images are completely different. I like the low-key portrait, but it depends what you prefer. The second shot is just a different way of approaching the same problem. Paul actually saw me playing around with it on my laptop one lunchtime and was kind enough to help out. He's exceptionally good at knowing how to improve an image in Lightroom, and with this one he completely changed the crop to show the tiger in the corner of the image with the 'wake' in the background. I had originally left the subject smack bang in the middle of the frame, but people generally don't like that, so this is a much more appealing image. Paul also helped optimise all the other settings in Lightroom to make subtle changes to the colour of the water and the tiger and get the most out of the picture. I've only been a photographer for four years, so I guess it might take another 20 for me to reach his level of confidence and expertise! Here's another of the pictures he helped me edit.

I'm coming to get you...!

The joy of this image is that it shows a tiger walking straight towards the camera. It's very rare to get that perspective in wildlife photography, as the animals naturally want to run from danger, but I just happened to be in a jeep that parked only five yards from the pile of branches where a tiger was sleeping, and - after a good hour's wait! - it finally emerged.

We were lucky in seeing so many tigers, but one of the other highlights was seeing a sloth bear. They're very shy, and sightings are very rare, but we were lucky enough to see one digging out a termite mound just by the side of the road. The sloth bear is the animal on which Kipling based Baloo in The Jungle Book, and it's a small, black omnivore weighing around 300lbs.

One sloth bear weighs the equivalent of 156,378 termites

The sighting lasted around 20 minutes, and the shot I really wanted was this one of the animal digging with a puff of earth shooting backwards. I thought I'd missed out, but I found out when I was looking through my images back at the lodge. The face is not quite sharp, but I'm trying to take more 'action shots' than simple portraits these days, so I was pretty pleased - especially considering that both Paul and Charlie said it was the best sighting of a sloth bear they'd ever had.

I guess the obvious question is, "What did you do when there weren't any animals around?" Well, if you happened to be travelling with Paul, he'd probably be playing the lyric game or challenging you to work out four or five cryptic clues to the names of Tube stations, but there was still wildlife to see, particularly at a local lake. We went on a couple of game drives to the 'buffer zone' between the national park and the neighbouring farmland, and we managed to find a rather picturesque lake with a relatively large number of birds. While we were waiting for reports of a tiger, we simply took pictures of the birds. There were lots of different kinds of egrets, storks and pond herons, and I took the opportunity to play around with the kind of underexposed settings that had worked so well with the tiger in the water hole.

"Egrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention..."

"Egrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention..."

The other chance we had to take pictures was during the break in the middle of the day. Indian bureaucracy is a nightmare, and we weren't allowed to enter the park between 1000 and 1500, so this was a chance to catch up on sleep, work on my photos or take more pictures, this time of the sunbirds at a tap in the garden. Paul told us about them when he presented his 'shot of the day' one evening, and, for the rest of the trip, there was a regular posse of snappers trying to capture the perfect mid-air close-up.

Male purple sunbird 'avin' a drink with the missus

In sum, then, we were lucky to have so many sightings of the tigers, but I thoroughly recommend the trip if you don't mind a little hardship. If you can stand the heat, the dust, the exhaustion, the illness, the boredom and the insults, you'll have a wonderful time!

 

Butcher's bill

1 x sunglasses (scratched irreparably)
1 x cuddly toy tiger (left in overhead locker on flight home)

 

Species list:

Animals

Barking deer
Bengal tiger (Maya, Matkasur, Madhuri and Chati-Tara plus several cubs)
Crocodile
Iguana
Indian gaur (bison)
Mongoose
Sambar deer
Sloth bear
Spotted deer
Squirrel

Birds & insects

Asian open-billed stork
Asian paradise flycatcher
Black-headed ibis
Black-naped monarch
Bronze-tailed jacana
Cattle egret
Common egret
Common iora
Common kingfisher
Crested hawk eagle
Darter
Dragonfly
Eurasian collared dove
Fish eagle
Great egret
Grey jungle fowl
Honey bee
Honey buzzard
Indian roller
Jungle fowl
Lapwing
Laughing dove
Lesser adjutant stork
Lesser whistling duck
Little cormorant
Little ringed plover
Magpie robin
Night heron
Osprey
Paddy field pippet
Paradise flycatcher
Peacock
Pheasant-tailed jacana
Pied kingfisher
Purple heron
Purple swamphen
Red wattled lapwing
Red-vented bulbul
Rufous tree-pie
Serpent eagle
Spotted dove
Tri-coloured munia
White-breasted water hen
White-throated kingfisher 

Getting the most out of game drives

The worst part about taking pictures is knowing you've just missed a great shot. Here, I try to help wildlife photographers learn from 'the one that got away'.

The one that got away...

This would've been a great shot. It could've been a great shot. It should've been a great shot. But it wasn't. Why? Motion blur. If you look closely, you can see that the whole body is slightly out of focus, and that was simply because I didn't think to change my shutter speed. I was parked in a jeep in Botswana when a herd of impala came chasing across the road. They were galloping fast, but there were five or six of them, so I did have time to focus on each of them, one by one, as they crossed the road in turn. Unfortunately, I was using my default camera settings that were designed to capture animals that were standing still. I was using an 80-400mm lens, so I had my camera on 1/320 and f/8 with auto ISO. That would normally have worked, but not for a jumping impala! What I really needed was a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second. I just didn't think...

In order to avoid moments like that, here are my answers to a few obvious questions:

What equipment do I need?

Good question. It's obviously too late to do anything once you're on safari, so it pays to get your equipment sorted out beforehand. People often ask me what camera I use, and it reminds me of a story I heard about Ernest Hemingway. He went to a photography exhibition in New York and was so impressed he asked to meet the photographer. 

Hemingway: These pictures are great. What camera do you use?

Photographer: Well, I use a Leica with a 50mm lens for most of my shots. I'm actually a big fan of your work, too, Mr Hemingway. I've read all your novels. Can I just ask: what typewriter do you use...?

The point is obviously that a good camera doesn't necessarily make a good picture, and it's mildly insulting to photographers if you ask about their equipment without complimenting them on their talent! However, all other things being equal, a good camera can make life a lot easier for wildlife photography. I'd suggest getting a full-frame DSLR with a zoom lens with a maximum focal length of at least 300mm, preferably 400mm or more. The problem with a bridge or DX camera is that you won't get the quality you're after, as they don't have large enough sensors. I started off with a bridge camera and thought the zoom was great - until I saw the Nikon DSLR one of the other guys had! I had a severe case of 'camera envy', so I emailed a friend of mine who was a professional photographer to ask what he would get. He recommended either Nikon or Canon, but Canon made photocopiers, so that was out of the question! Instead, I bought myself a Nikon D800 - complete with 36.3 megapixels! - and it's served me well ever since. I now also have a D810, which is an upgraded version of the D800. Having two cameras means I don't have to worry about changing lenses. Instead, I carry them both cameras on a SpiderPro holster that looks a bit like an old Western cowboy's gun belt. I can take them out and put them back with just one hand, and I can lock them in place if I'm going on a boat ride or clambering over rocks and don't want to take any chances. 

As for lenses, I mainly use an 80-400mm on the D800 and rent an 800mm prime on the D810. They're both made by Nikon, and for a very good reason. I tried a Sigma 50-500mm and then a Tamron 150-600mm lens, but the images just weren't sharp enough. I now manually check the autofocus of all my lenses using Reikan Focal automatic lens calibration software. All you do is print out a 'target' and set up your camera on a tripod to take pictures of it from a certain distance away. Once you load the software, it guides you through the set-up and takes a number of exposures automatically, just asking you to change the manual focus adjustment anywhere from -20 to +20. When the routine is finished, it gives you a PDF report showing the optimal adjustment value - and that's what persuaded me to use only Nikon lenses. I'd been on a trip to Svalbard and wasn't happy with my shots of the polar bears, which were all just a little bit soft. One of the other guys on the trip told me he did a manual focus check, and that's when I started doing it, too. It was only when I bought my new 80-400mm lens that I realised the huge difference in sharpness: the Sigma and Tamron were down at around 1400 on the numeric scale, and the Nikon was way up at 2200! In short, check your lenses. They're mass-produced items, so there's always bound to be some slight variation in focus, and you'd rather fix it yourself than have to use it as an excuse when you don't get the sharpness you want.

I also make sure I always pack a polarising filter together with a lens cleaning kit (with sensor swabs and cleaning fluid), a beanbag (for resting the lens on the windowsill of a jeep) and my laptop (so that I can download and work on my pictures in the evening). If I'm going to be near a waterfall, like Iguazu or Victoria Falls, I'll also take my tripod and a 'Big Stopper' neutral density filter to give me the chance of taking creamy pictures of the water with a  long shutter speed.

What else should I do before I leave?

Getting the right equipment (and changing the time zone on your camera!) is one thing, but you can help yourself out by booking the right holiday in the right location at the right time. Check when the 'long rains' are if you're going to Africa. Check when the peak season is for wildlife viewing. Check if it's possible to visit when there's a full moon or - even better - a harvest moon. You can ask all these questions (and more) to make sure you get the very most out of your trip. One useful site for African expeditions is Safari Bookings, which allows you to search for packages by location, duration and price. I also like to travel light. I hate the whole airport experience, so I avoid having to check any bags in by having a roll-aboard camera bag and packing all my clothing into a jacket that has a pocket in the lining that goes all the way round. It looks a bit funny when you walk through customs - and some people just couldn't do it - but it saves me an awful lot of time and bother. If you’re a birdwatcher, you might also want to invest in an app to help you identify the local species. I downloaded one called eGuide to Birds of East Africa, and it’s excellent. It does cost around £27.99, but it’s very quick to check the name of a bird - which is often what you need to do when your guide tells you what it is but you’re too embarrassed to ask him how to spell it!

What should I take with me on the game drives?

If you're a keen photographer, you won't want to miss anything while you're out taking pictures from the 4x4, but that doesn't mean you need to take the entire contents of your camera bag! I would simply take your camera(s) and your longest lens(es) - protected by waterproof covers - plus a couple of spare batteries and a lens cloth. A beanbag might come in handy on certain vehicles, but that's about it.

What should I wear?

I generally cover up to avoid sunburn and insect bites, so I generally wear green cargo pants, a long-sleeved shirt, a floppy sun hat and trainers. (It's very easy to get sunburn, though, so do slap sunscreen on any exposed areas before you leave.) I also take a jacket on morning game drives as it gets quite cool before sunrise. If it's a walking safari, I'll wear hiking boots instead. I avoid baseball caps as it's hard to look through the viewfinder without bumping the camera on the brim, and sunglasses rather get in the way when I'm taking pictures. My wardrobe consists of greens, browns and blacks. I'm not sure if animals are exactly frightened by bright colours, but you'll get some funny looks from the other guests if you turn up in hot pants and a Day-Glo pink T-shirt!

What camera settings should I use?

There's an old photographer's joke:

Fan to photographer: I love your pictures. What settings did you use?

Photographer to fan: f/8 and be there!

The point is that 'being there' is more important than any camera settings, but that doesn't mean they don't matter at all - as shown by my shot of the leaping impala.

Exposure

The 'Exposure Triangle' consists of the aperture, shutter speed and ISO value, and these are the only three ways you can change the brightness of the image: either having a bigger hole, keeping it open for longer or increasing the sensitivity of the sensor. A lot of beginners stick to automatic as they don't trust themselves to use manual settings, but they lose a lot of control by doing that. The camera doesn't know how fast the animal is travelling or how much of it you want to be in focus, so how can it possibly decide the best combination of shutter speed and aperture? Why not experiment a little and decide for yourself the kind of image you're going to take? Now, you still have to make sure you get the correct exposure somehow, and I'm not suggesting you use the exposure meter and manually change the settings for each shot! What I do is start off with a good set of general-purpose settings and set the ISO to automatic. That way, I get exactly the shutter speed and aperture I want, but the camera makes sure it's correctly exposed. The general rule is that you need a shutter speed the inverse of your focal length, so, If I'm using my 80-400mm lens at the top end of the zoom range, that means around 1/400th of a second. (Bear in mind, though, that you have to take into account the speed of the animal as well as how steady you can hold the camera!) I generally like to take 'portraits' of the animals, so I want to throw the background out of focus to emphasise the eyes. That means a wide aperture such as f/5.6, but I've started using f/8 because my lens tests tell me that both my lenses perform at their sharpest at f/8, and I want the maximum sharpness I can get. The problem comes, obviously, when there's not enough light to use your default settings, or the animals are moving too fast. That's when you need to take charge and make a difficult decision: which is the most important, the shutter speed, the aperture or the ISO? If it's a fast-moving animal, the shutter speed obviously takes priority. If the light level is dropping, then you probably want to compromise and change both aperture and shutter speed by 1/3 of a stop (or more). Most stock agencies don't want pictures taken at high ISO values (640+), so that's something to bear in mind if you're trying to sell your work.

Autofocus

Manual focus has its place in macro photography and in low light conditions, but wildlife photography generally demands that we use one of the two methods of autofocus: single point (AF-S on the Nikon) or continuous (AF-C). I generally keep my D800 with the wide-angle lens on single point, as I'll be using it to take landscape shots, but I keep my D810 with the long zoom lens on AF-C 3D, as I'll be using it to take pictures of animals. In fact, sharpness is so important for wildlife shots that I use what's called 'back-button focusing', which means setting up the camera so that I can focus by pressing the AF-ON button on the back with my right thumb. The AF-C 3D setting continuously focuses on one particular point on the animal that you select when you first press the AF button, and it magically follows that point even if the animal is moving. It's not perfect, but what it does mean is that you don't have to worry about losing focus when you half-press the shutter and then take a picture. By separating the focusing from releasing the shutter, you get the best chance of getting that all-important sharpness in the animal's eye.

White balance

You can always change it in Lightroom later (or another image-processing software package), but I generally still try to update my white balance setting as the light changes. It saves time later, and it follows the general principle of trying to get everything right in camera. Messing around in Lightroom should always be a last resort.

Quality (RAW)

Shoot in RAW. There. Is. No. Alternative. 

Other settings

One of the confusing and frustrating thing about the DSLR is the number of settings there are and the fact that you can't 'reset' everything in one go. It would be wonderful if there were one button that would do everything, but there isn't. There are mechanical as well as electronic settings, so it's impossible to assign one button to change both. As it is, it's worth having a mental checklist to go through before you go out on the game drive and even while you're out there. The main settings to monitor are the following:

  • Mode: Manual, unless you've never picked up a camera before...

  • Shutter speed: 1/1000 (I know the 1/focal length rule, and I know Nikon's Vibration Reduction and Canon's Image Stabilisation mean you might get away with up to four stops 'slower', but animals move too quickly to take that chance!)

  • Aperture: f/5.6 or f/8, depending on how big the animal is and therefore how much depth of field you need

  • ISO mode: auto

  • Exposure compensation: None, unless you're photographing a very bright or dark animal such as a polar bear on ice or a gorilla

  • Autofocus: AF-C 3D on the Nikon, continuous servo on the Canon

  • White balance: Daylight - if it's your typical African sunny day, although you can always change it later if you shoot in RAW

  • Active D-lighting or Auto Lighting Optimizer (ALO): Auto or off unless you're taking a picture into the sun and want detail in the shot (It's a kind of in-camera HDR to squeeze the histogram for images that would be too contrasty otherwise.)

  • Lens lock (off, obviously - you don't want to miss a shot because you can't zoom in!)

  • Artificial horizon: if you have symbols in your viewfinder to tell you when the camera is straight and level, then do use them. It’ll save you an awful lot of time later on straightening horizons in Lightroom…!

What should I do on the actual game drive itself?

Although you may end up spending many hours on game drives without seeing much of interest, it's very important to be ready for anything. That means paying attention to a few simple guidelines:

  • Tell your guide what you want to do or see. For most people, the epitome of the safari experience is to see a kill. To make sure you have the best chance of doing that, I’d suggest asking your guide to try and find the big cats for you and then - crucially - to stay with them for as long as it takes. Leopards are ‘ambush’ hunters, so that won’t work unless you’re very, very lucky. Lions are possible, but they tend to hunt in the evening. The best are probably cheetahs as they hunt during the day and - when they do - offer spectacular opportunities to see the fastest land mammal sprinting at up to 70mph! However, if you’re a bit squeamish or if you’re worried about your children seeing something that might upset them, you might ask your guide just to drive around with no particular plan in mind, stopping to take pictures of whatever you happen to see. If you have a specialist interest such as birds, for example, you’ll need a different strategy. Birds don’t come very high up most people’s list of things to see, so you might need to arrange a one-off day for all the birders in the group. In general, though, you should just make sure that you let the driver know when you want to stop and when you’re happy to move on. It’s your holiday, so don’t be afraid to ask for what you want!

  • Make the most of the sunset. If you’re in a national park, it can be very frustrating towards the end of the day when you have to get back before they close the gates, which is usually around 1800-1830. That means missing out on all sorts of possible opportunities, including taking pictures at sunset. The good thing about going to a privately owned ‘conservancy’ is that, first of all, you’re allowed off-road and, secondly, you’re allowed to stay as long as you like! One way to get great shots is to drive to the brow of a hill around half an hour before sundown, find a herd of animals and then take shots of them in silhouette against the sky. Just make sure the horizon is nice and low so that you make the most of all the colours.

  • Make sure you're camera settings are correct. It may sound obvious, but it's no good being lazy and thinking, "Oh, I'll set the shutter speed and the aperture if an animal comes along." There's often very little time to get a good shot before the animal turns or moves away, so the last thing you want to be doing is checking your settings. Just stick to the basics, with the shutter speed at 1/1000, aperture at f/5.6 or f/8 and the ISO on auto. If it's still a bit dark in the morning, that might not work, and you might have to reduce the shutter speed or increase the aperture, but the important point is to make those decisions in advance, not when you're about to take a picture.

  • Get into a comfortable position from which it's easy to take pictures. If you have more than one camera or a camera with a long lens, find a good spot for all your equipment so that it'll only take a few seconds from spotting an animal to taking a picture. If you're in a jeep, that might mean winding the window down half-way so that you can rest your lens on it or taking your shoes off so that you can stand on your seat if there's a pop-up roof. Just don't end up in the same predicament as a friend of mine, who thought his camera wasn't working when he'd actually just left the lens cap on!

  • Keep a good look-out. Your guide or driver will usually be very good at spotting animals and birds and stopping in the right position so that you can take a picture, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't pay attention. I generally sit in the front seat and point things out as we go along. If the animal is far away or it's something common like an impala, I'll just say, 'Impala on the right', but I'm quick to tap the driver on the shoulder if I spot something more interesting. Even if you end up right at the back, don't be afraid to tell the driver to stop. He may have seen it all before, but it's your trip and your memories!

  • Tell everyone where and how far away the animal is. If they see an animal, a lot of people will just point and say, "Oh, look!" or "Over there!" but that's not terribly helpful unless it's a herd of elephants on a treeless plain! It's difficult to follow someone's arm when they're pointing from a different position, and it's hard to know where to look if you don't know how far away the animal is supposed to be. I'd suggest using the 'clock' method and giving a rough estimate of distance. For example, if you see a lion on the right side of the vehicle, you might say, "There's a lion at three o'clock about 100 yards away."

  • Take care of your kit. A lot of safari destinations are very dusty or sandy, and it's easy for your camera and the front lens to get covered with a film of dust, so be sure to clean them regularly. It's often hard to tell if you have a lens hood, but it's worth checking. When I was in India, I wiped the front of my 800mm lens with a lens cloth after a couple of hours on the road, and it turned almost completely red from all the dust!

  • Keep the noise down. Animals and birds are easily spooked, so try to keep your voice low, either when you're chatting to other guests or when you spot something. There's nothing worse than getting a great sighting of a leopard or something, only for someone to scare it off by talking too loudly...

  • Don't rock the boat. The best wildlife shots need a rock-steady platform, so twisting around in your seat, standing up, sitting down or generally moving around too much is a nightmare for the other photographers. If you have to change position, either wait until other people have taken their shot or do it very slowly and gently.

  • Be considerate. Tempers often get a little frayed in the excitement of the chase, so do be aware of the other guests and what they're trying to do. If you jog someone's arm or tell the driver to move on before someone has finished taking pictures, just apologise. You're there for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not to hack off your fellow guests!

What makes a good photograph?

Dust, air and spume. That's the Holy Trinity of wildlife photography, according to Paul Goldstein, who is a wildlife photographer and also a great speaker and raconteur. I went on two of his trips to Spitsbergen and Tadoba, and I've seen several of his presentations. The idea is that 'dust' is thrown up by the movement of the animals and gives you a sense of dynamism and energy, 'air' means that an animal is in the air and about to land - so we have a sense of anticipation - and 'spume' is the spray that is thrown up by movement in water.

That's just Paul's view, and there are obviously other aspects to the question. One thing that he also points out is the difference between a 'record shot' and a 'photograph'. To him, a 'record shot' is just a snapshot, a picture that records exactly what's in front of you, but a 'photograph' is something that obeys the rules of composition and has been consciously constructed by the photographer to provoke an emotional reaction. There aren't that many rules of composition in wildlife photography, but it's worth bearing them in mind when you're out shooting. Here are a few of the common ones:

  • Fill the frame. Robert Capa once said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” People don't want to have to search the image for the animal, so zoom in or ask your driver to get closer so that you can make it the centre of attention!

  • Use leading lines. Where available, they can lead the eye of the viewer into the image, for instance in a picture of an impala on the horizon crossing a road leading into the distance.

  • Use the Rule of Thirds. Human eyes don't like things that are too symmetrical - unless you can manage a perfect reflection - so try to put the focal point of your shot off-centre. That adds dynamism and a different kind of balance.

  • Focus on the eyes. People don't care if 99% of an animal is out of focus as long as the eyes are sharp.

  • Capture the moment. A guide in the States once compared my shots to those of another guy on the trip. He said that Stefan's were always technically perfect, very sharp and with gorgeous, saturated colours, but mine were all about the moment. I take that as a compliment. It means you have to wait for the right moment to take the shot. Don't just keep clicking away like a Japanese tourist by Big Ben. Compose your shot and then wait for the animal to do something to make it more memorable. It could be a sneeze, a yawn - anything! - but it will mark your picture out as special.

  • Tell a story. The tagline to this website is 'Every picture tells a story', and that's a goal we should all aspire to when taking pictures. What are we trying to say? What mood are we trying to create? What's the emotion behind the shot? It's not always easy, but picking exactly the right composition can create humour, joy, sorrow, horror and any number of other powerful reactions - which is just what we want.

  • Break the rules - selectively! Obeying the rules will give you a nice, balanced image, but Paul for one hates 'nice', and I can see his point. Sometimes, the best way of creating a strongly emotional image is to break a rule or two. You have to do it sparingly - and consciously - but it sometimes gives you that much more of a chance of creating a genuinely arresting image. One of his favourite techniques is the 'slow pan', which means following a moving animal or bird with a slow shutter speed and taking a number of shots as it goes past. The idea is to create a sense of movement by blurring the background and the legs or wings of the animal or bird while keeping the body and especially the eyes sharp. It's a technique that's very difficult to master. You have to do a lot of experimentation, and it helps to have a tripod! I once went on a boat trip in Svalbard and took 1,504 pictures of guillemots using the slow pan - but I only kept four of them! It sounds like a lot of effort, but it's worth it in the end.

Botswana and Victoria Falls

If you fancy watching a herd of 30 elephants crossing a river, photographing a malachite kingfisher perched three feet away or seeing an elephant chase off a pride of lions, try Botswana!

Water. You don't realise how important it is until you've been on safari in Botswana. I'd been to Kenya three times, but I'd never been to the Okavango Delta or the Chobe River, and it made all the difference. You don't have the iconic silhouette of Mount Kenya or the wildebeest migration across the Mara, but the landscape is utterly transformed. If Nigella were writing the recipe for Botswana, it would be something like this:

1. Take a country like Kenya or Tanzania
2. Smooth off any surface imperfections (like Mount Kenya or Kilimanjaro)
3. Sprinkle with dead trees
4. Add water
5. Serve hot

The water makes the landscape itself beautiful - especially when your guide cuts the engine, and you're watching the sun set over the Delta! - and it acts as a great backdrop for wildlife photography. Which is why I was there in the first place...

Itinerary

The reason I wanted to go to Botswana was to take pictures in a different environment; the reason I was able to was that I had a wad of cash burning a hole in my pocket when a property deal fell through! Whatever the reason, it worked out well enough, as an Indian couple wanted me to teach their two young children in Nairobi from 11-17 April. I did the same thing last year, and it's been a pleasure both times. It also gave me a head start in getting to Botswana. I found a useful site called Safari Bookings that allowed me to enter the location, duration and cost of the trip, and I searched through all the possible options. A friend of mine Jason was thinking about coming, too, but he eventually couldn't get the time off, so I decided to go for broke. I was a once-in-a-lifetime trip - although I seem to do one of those every few weeks nowadays! - so I didn't want to compromise on the itinerary. A group tour would've been cheaper, but that would've meant spending more time in a big truck on the road, going to places I didn't really want to go to and having to put up with other people (eeeuuugghhh!). In the end, I found an American company called WorldwideXplorer that was willing to tailor their 14-day safari for me and me alone. Marisa looked after my booking, and she was always very helpful. It wasn't cheap, but I was guaranteed to see the highlights I wanted, starting off on Chief's Island in the Okavango Delta and then moving north through the Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park before finishing with a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls. It was going to be a 'mobile safari', which meant I'd be travelling in a customised Toyota Land Cruiser with a local guide and two other staff, camping every night and making the most of all the travel time by spending every day on game drives from sunrise to sunset.

My route from Maun to Victoria Falls

The only downside to tacking the safari on to the end of my trip to Nairobi was that I had to go during the 'shoulder season'. That meant it was harder to see the animals due to a combination of denser undergrowth and altered migration patterns following heavy late rains caused by El Niño. It didn't look too promising during the first few days, and I had to have a couple of 'chats' with my guide Makabu about the itinerary, particularly when we didn't see a single thing on a two-hour boat ride! When a group of Germans arrived, we almost ended up starting our game drive at 0800 rather than 0600 until I let him know in no uncertain terms that wasting two hours was 'unacceptable'! Anyway, I persuaded him to get permission to junk the boat rides in favour of game drives, and we soon settled into a routine of waking up at 0530, leaving at 0600 on a game drive, eating a packed lunch, getting back at 1800 for a quick 'bush shower' and then dinner and bed. Once we'd left Chief's Island, we changed campsites every couple of days, which meant picking up our cook and handyman, hitching the trailer and then driving north. Our overall itinerary was as follows:

Night of 18 April: Flight from Nairobi to Maun via Johannesburg

19 April: Sedia Hotel, Maun

20-22 April: Chief's Island, Okavango Delta

23 April: Third Bridge, Okavango Delta

24-25 April: Moremi Game Reserve

26-27 April: Savuti, Chobe National Park

28-29 April: Ihaha, Chobe National Park

30 April-1 May: Waterfront Lodge, Livingstone, Zambia (near the Victoria Falls)

2 May: Flight from Livingstone to London via Johannesburg

Wildlife

The density of wildlife might not have been as high as in peak season, but we more than made up for it by the sheer number of hours we spent driving through the bush. I can only remember one day when we had more than a few minutes for lunch, and we must've spent over 100 hours on game drives and/or boat rides during our 10 days on safari. Apart from the rhinoceros, we saw all of the Big Five - lion, leopard, elephant and Cape buffalo - and we saw a total of 29 mammals and reptiles and 81 different types of birds, including my two favourites: the African fish eagle and the lilac-breasted roller (see list below).

African fish eagle on a dead tree. Thank God for DDT.

African fish eagle on a dead tree. Thank God for DDT.

Lilac-breasted rollers should be seen and not heard

Lilac-breasted rollers should be seen and not heard

My only disappointment was hearing the roller's call for the first time. For such a beautiful bird, why does it have to sound like an angry crow with a sore throat! Makabu's species knowledge was excellent, and there were only a couple he didn't know or got slightly wrong. Having said that, there was always a bit of a language barrier between us. We usually had to ask each other to repeat what had been said, and bird names are not the easiest words to pick up - you can imagine how many times Makabu had to repeat 'Swainson's francolin' to me!

As I say, I was in Botswana to take pictures, so the highlights for me were inevitably coloured by the ones that turned out well.

Birds

I'm very fond of the lilac-breasted roller and the African fish eagle, but my favourite bird encounter came when I was on a boat ride on the Chobe River. I spotted a malachite kingfisher in the distance and asked my driver to get a bit closer. He did as I asked and then cut the engine, letting the boat drift closer and closer. I immediately started taking pictures, and the bird got bigger and bigger in my viewfinder until it almost didn't fit in the frame. I was using a 400mm lens, but the malachite kingfisher is only a tiny bird, so I had no idea how close I had come until it eventually flew off. I put my camera down and realised I had only been three feet away from it! I'd seen one before in Kenya last year - again on a boat ride - but this shot was the mother of all close-ups!

It's called the malachite kingfisher because malachite is, er, green...

It's called the malachite kingfisher because malachite is, er, green...

Lions

We saw a lot of lions during the trip, but we were particularly lucky in Moremi, when we saw the same two lions at sunset and then early the following morning. We were able to get incredibly close - no more than five yards away - and the light during the 'golden hour' was fantastic.

I love the smell of impala in the morning. Smells like breakfast!

I love the smell of impala in the morning. Smells like breakfast!

Elephants

Chobe is famous for its herds of elephants, and I certainly enjoyed my boat ride on the Chobe River when I suddenly found myself in the middle of a herd of 30 elephants crossing from one side to the other! However, the most exciting moment I had came when we spotted a couple of young male elephants in the Delta and drove to within ten yards of them. They were happily eating the fruit that was being dropped by vervet monkeys in a tree when one of them decided to step forward and challenge us by trumpeting in full-on Tarzan fashion! I have to admit, that sent my heart racing! Makabu later told me elephants attack silently - so I needn't have worried - but I defy anyone to be calm when an elephant is trumpeting at you from five yards away - even Makabu started the engine at one point!

"Mud, mud, glorious mud! Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood..."

"Mud, mud, glorious mud! Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood..."

Lions & elephants

As if lions and elephants separately were not enough, they actually joined forces at Ihaha. We were driving along a track on the shore of the Chobe River at dusk when we saw a pride of eight lions lying in the shade of a tree. I could see an elephant heading their way, but I had no idea what was going to happen next. Out of nowhere, the elephant suddenly started trumpeting at the lions and then chased them all away! I've never seen lions move so fast...

Elephant 1 Lions 0

Leopard

The first time 'we' saw a leopard was in Moremi, although I didn't actually see anything at all. I was busy watching an impala when Makabu suddenly shouted, "Nkwe," which I later found out meant 'leopard' in Setswana. He had just seen a leopard cross the track right in front of us, and he immediately drove after it. After a few yards, he jumped on the roof to work out where it was, then unhooked the trailer and followed it off-road. You're not supposed to do either of those things, but I like the fact that Africans believe rules are meant to be broken! The leopard escaped, sadly, but we did see one three days later in Savuti. We had started our game drive at 0630, and almost immediately we saw a leopard sitting in the middle of the dirt track. It trotted towards us in the golden light, and I got some great shots - although I was worried my favourite was a bit blurred. You be the judge...

The cat who walked by himself...

The cat who walked by himself...

Victoria Falls

The other highlight, of course, was seeing the Victoria Falls for the very first time. The walking tour was useless - there was so much spray we couldn't see a thing! - but the helicopter ride was sensational, much better than the one I did over Iguazu a few weeks earlier. I'd managed to book a private tour, so I sat in the front seat and took pictures while the pilot flew over the falls and then went down into the gorges downriver.

It's a very dramatic landscape, so cresting a ridge and dropping down to a Grade 6 rapid is really quite exciting - especially as we were no more than 20 feet above the waves! I did have a few problems with reflections in the glass when shooting into the sun, but there was no window to open, so I just had to put up with it. It was only when we landed and I told the pilot I was a professional photographer that he told me that, if he'd known beforehand, he would've taken the rear door off and let me shoot from there! Grrrr...

Dr Livingstone discovered them, I presume...

Verdict

I'm very glad I decided to visit Botswana for the first time. I still have a sentimental attachment to Kenya, as it was the first country I ever visited in Africa and provided me with lots of happy memories of climbing Mount Kenya as well as seeing the Big Five on various game drives, but Botswana has the big advantage of water. It makes such a difference and turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. I just hope my pictures have somehow managed to capture that.

List of species

Animals

  • Banded mongoose
  • Black mamba
  • Black-backed jackal
  • Blue wildebeest
  • Burchell's zebra
  • Cape buffalo
  • Chacma baboon
  • Cheetah
  • Common warthog
  • Eland
  • Elephant
  • Ground squirrel
  • Hippopotamus
  • Impala
  • Kudu
  • Leopard
  • Leopard tortoise
  • Lion
  • Nile crocodile
  • Red lechwe
  • Sable antelope
  • South African giraffe
  • Steenbok
  • Tsessebe
  • Vervet monkey
  • Water monitor
  • Waterbuck
  • Wild dog
  • Yellow mongoose

Birds

  • African darter
  • African fish eagle
  • African green pigeon
  • African harrier-hawk/harrier hawk/gymnogene
  • African hoopoe
  • African jacana
  • African marsh harrier
  • African skimmer
  • Bateleur
  • Black crake
  • Black egret
  • Black-collared barbet
  • Black-winged stilt
  • Blacksmith plover
  • Brown-headed snake eagle
  • Burchell's sand grouse
  • Burchell's starling
  • Cape turtle dove
  • Cape wagtail
  • Cattle egret
  • Coppery-tailed coucal
  • Crowned eagle
  • Double-banded sand grouse
  • Egyptian goose
  • Fork-tailed drongo
  • Gabor goshawk
  • Glossy ibis
  • Great white egret
  • Great white pelican
  • Green-backed heron
  • Grey heron
  • Grey hornbill
  • Ground plover
  • Hadeda ibis
  • Hammerkop
  • Helmeted guineafowl
  • Hooded vulture
  • Kori bustard
  • Lappet-faced vulture
  • Lilac-breasted roller
  • Little bee-eater
  • Little egret
  • Long-tailed pied shrike
  • Malachite kingfisher
  • Marabou stork
  • Martial eagle
  • Meyer's parrot
  • Monotonous lark
  • Ostrich
  • Pied kingfisher
  • Pygmy goose
  • Red cormorant
  • Red-billed francolin
  • Red-billed hornbill
  • Red-billed oxpecker
  • Red-billed teal
  • Red-breasted korhaan
  • Red-eyed dove
  • Sacred ibis
  • Saddle-billed stork
  • Secretary bird/snake eagle
  • Slatey egret
  • Southern ground hornbill
  • Southern pied babbler
  • Southern red bishop
  • Spoon-billed stork
  • Spotted eagle owl
  • Spur-winged goose
  • Swainson's francolin
  • Swallow-tailed bee-eater
  • Three-banded plover
  • Water dikkop
  • Wattled crane
  • White-backed vulture
  • White-browed robin chat
  • White-crowned plover
  • White-faced whistling duck
  • Yellow oxpecker
  • Yellow-billed egret
  • Yellow-billed hornbill
  • Yellow-billed stork